Postcode Uprising: the hidden story of the youth riots
Suffice to say, Britain does not have a history of “Youth Riots”. Such events are not as regular or predictable as French or Danish Youth Riots, with their specific politics and social science appeal. So to see young people out on the streets over the last few weeks, and to witness the relatively small number of broken windows has been as unexpected for many activists as it has for many police officers. But the media, slow to respond and supplied with only limited information, has been very slow to see some of what’s going on.
There have been many inspirational interviews given in the wake of the Parliament Square riot last week, not least the infamous interview with Jody MacIntyre and the BBC interviewer who doesn’t seem to understand the realities of Cerebral Palsy. But the one that stands out in my mind was given by a fresh youth, his face covered, by the sound system that had been commandeered to play Dubstep to the glee of the many black kids present.
In Britain, rarely do movements about anything other than race have non-white leadership. Elitism and privilege run deep in the veins of our movements, and are often left uncommented, let alone actively challenged. So to see these young people taking up reporters time was a relief, in some ways. It shouldn’t be, but it was. I know full well that students have the ability to engage in a concerted outbursts of political activity – its the great pleasure of working with students in developing their activist potential. The combined privileges of time, some money and sufficient education tend to work in their favour, and the net result is a disproportionately middle-class set of activists-at-the-ready when something happens. Middle-class students protesting about something unjust just isn’t a story in the grand scheme of things.
Those I know who were present in London tell me a different story – one of mysterious graffiti displaying postcode areas on the walls in Parliament Square. The media seemed to largely ignore it, barring a few interviews and references to the “Dubstep Revolution”. The forgotten boroughs, the areas of which polite London isn’t so proud, produced some of the most fervent and determined protesters – and perhaps the real story.
I think the media that ignored them probably did so for two reasons. First, because this wasn’t supposed to be the story. The story was supposed to be middle class kids who’d never had it so good causing a fuss over a loss of needless privilege – the children of those getting by quite nicely make a scene and needing to be brought under control by London’s brave police officers. The fact so many of the protesters were actually from the very boroughs where only in recent years has the prospect of university education been a possibility. The other reason was probably something of a sense of fear – the University students were never really going to get out of hand, and some would even be looking to work in the buildings surrounding the area where the protest took place.
The youth of the ghetto aren’t limited by those parameters. Faced with accepting their role in a neo-Victorian Britain, thousands of them poured into central London to say no. And so many of the comments I heard about the protesters had that air of middle class condescension about them that drives me mad. In a time when those at the bottom are briefly moving against those at the top, it is not the place of those in the middle to criticise the bottom.
I resent the obsession with “Working Class Politics” for several reasons. First, because it assumes that economic role is inevitably the defining characteristic of a human life. Second because the parties that appeal to this world view are some of the most hierarchical and least caring of the individual than any others. Third because they fail to conceive of a role for the fully marginalised. These young people represent exactly that – they are not the children of workers, of people who have some vested interest in playing along. They are the children of the workless, the forgotten, the social dumping grounds that have been growing even under New Labour. To call them surplus labour is both brutally accurate and a poor presentation. In the harsh reality of the 21st Century, these are the underclass.
They have the advantage that a criminal record means nothing to them – they will get one whether for noble cause or simply trying to get by in life, and the whole point is that they have no job prospects. They also have the advantage of an uncluttered perspective. Fairness is something people can argue about without getting anything done. For this lot, justice is crystal clear concept, and something to be actively pursued. This presents several problems – how to avoid a politics of attrition and move into a politics with potential to transform society, for instance. They lack the reasons to be grateful that more children of more affluent families have, and the brakes provided by a knowledge of what the state might do in response, or the practicalities of their actions – they don’t know what’s impossible. Every activist knows that when you get kettled you’re pretty much done for the day. This lot, thank God, have no idea what a kettle is or why its the end of the day. And being at the bottom of the hierarchy, they have nothing to gain by maintaining it – no distance to fall, no privilege to rescind and no loss of power over others.
But to paint this as a totally clueless mob is to ignore the fact that they have knowledge and experience – growing up in a rough borough probably doesn’t leave room for much innocence. “What do they want us to do? Push drugs?!” I heard from one. “Why march past parliament and go somewhere else when our target is parliament?” seems to be the unspoken consensus (one I’ve wondered plenty of times before). Note the near total lack of speeches, the low profile of even the highest profile people. We need people who can tell others what we think, not tell us what we should think. Journalists, writers, but not speakers on platforms. After all, there is nothing symbolic about this government’s (structurally and systemically) violent attempts to smash the ladder and reinforce with iron and steel the floors and ceilings of this hierarchy.
We have that wonderful phrase in British political commentary of a post-code lottery. When you shovel all the raw deals and excuses, the broken dreams and empty wallets into just a few postcodes, eventually the numbers will come up. It looks like they already have.